What are Democrats waiting for? Time to impeach Donald Trump
Pressure for impeachment has risen after the testimony of former special counsel Robert Mueller to Congress this week. Many House members remain cautious about impeachment, and caution is not bad. But it is not a strategy nor a substitute for one. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Richard Nixon, I remember the hostility of the leadership toward impeachment then. But public outcry at his conduct forced the House to start an impeachment inquiry anyway.
Similar outcry today is tempered by fears that impeachment will backfire and strengthen the reelection chances of Donald Trump in 2020. But the Nixon impeachment effort, which is the only one that actually forced a sitting president from office, suggests that those concerns may not be justified. It is the relevant precedent for impeaching Trump, and it negates the following arguments against starting an impeachment inquiry now.
The first argument against impeachment is that it will divide the nation. But the Nixon impeachment process in fact united the nation. Americans overwhelmingly supported the House Judiciary Committee because it acted impartially on facts and evidence. Almost a third of the Republicans on the panel joined the Democrats in voting for impeachment. Americans rediscovered a shared value, more important than any party or president, which is upholding the rule of law and the importance of the Constitution.
The second argument against impeachment is that House Republicans will never support it. Back in 1973, it seemed to be the same. No House Republican publicly supported the Nixon impeachment until just days before the Judiciary Committee began debating articles of impeachment nine months after the inquiry started. Yet, Republicans ended up voting for impeachment, even before the Supreme Court released the “smoking gun” tape proving Nixon was complicit. The process changed minds in the House then and could again now.
The third argument against impeachment is that it will distract the House from legislating. But that is not what happened during Watergate. The House adopted important bills while the Judiciary Committee did its work, including the War Powers Resolution, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Water Resources Development Act, and the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act. The 116th Congress could certainly match that record.
The fourth argument against impeachment is that even if the House votes for it, the Senate majority will not vote for conviction. When the Senate Select Committee began investigating Watergate in 1973, conservative Tennessee Senator Howard Baker, the highest ranking Republican on the panel, worked closely with the White House to thwart the investigation. His famous questions, what did the president know and when did he know it, were meant to show that Nixon knew nothing and was innocent. But when witnesses testified otherwise, Baker and others were persuaded. Conviction became certain, and Nixon resigned before a Senate trial could happen. Today, nearly three dozen senators are up for reelection in 2020. Effective impeachment proceedings would affect their calculus.
The fifth argument against impeachment is that most Americans may not support it. Nixon won reelection in 1972 by a landslide. Most Americans eventually changed their minds to support the Nixon impeachment. A Trump impeachment is easier to rethink. He lost the popular vote and most Americans view him unfavorably. Most Americans currently do not support impeachment, and that was also true when the Nixon inquiry started. But people changed their minds then and could again now.
The sixth argument against impeachment is that it will be politically bad for Democrats. The opposite proved true during Watergate. Democrats won huge victories in the midterms. Voters respected how Democrats handled impeachment and were appalled by Nixon and Republicans supporting him. No one could have predicted that a year earlier. No one can predict how a fair impeachment process based on the facts would play politically now, however, it certainly helped Democrats back then.
Finally, the last argument against impeachment is that Bill Clinton came out stronger and so would Trump. The Clinton impeachment failed because most Americans never believed his reprehensible conduct threatened democracy. Watergate was different. When the facts of what Nixon actually did came to light, such as illegal wiretaps, interfering with a federal investigation, dangling pardons, paying hush money, suborning perjury, and demanding tax audits of political enemies, many minds changed. That could happen again.
Concentrating on 2020 and abandoning impeachment would be a big mistake. The framers of our Constitution created the impeachment power because they understood that removing a rogue president before an election might prove critical. No one knows who will win in 2020. Some worry that if the House votes for impeachment and the Senate does not convict that Trump will come out stronger. But that is not at all clear.
A proper impeachment inquiry marshals the facts and educates the public. That could damage Trump much like it disgraced Nixon. If no inquiry is brought, Trump will likely use that to his advantage and claim it was all a witch hunt all along. Since he will probably say that with or without an inquiry, is democracy not better off with an inquiry that unearths new evidence and educates the public than without one?
History shows impeachment is always an uncertain proposition. When the Nixon inquiry began in 1973, we did not know the full case against him or whether there would be enough votes in the House or the Senate. But we did know that the conduct of Nixon endangered our democracy and that we had to confront it head on. We did so and the country was better for it. Let us not run away from that precedent. There is a strong and serious case for impeaching Trump, and the Constitution gives Congress the power to investigate and remove him. That process needs to start now.
Elizabeth Holtzman served in Congress for four terms as a Democratic representative from New York. She was a member of the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate investigation involving Richard Nixon.